Celebrate: Natural Endings

This week, celebrating is a natural thing to do.

One: I celebrate the hard work and team work it takes to perform in front of others.

  • All 120 students performed four times for friends and family, reciting the preamble to the Constitution and the fifty states and capitols.
  • All 120 students ran a mile, a traditional fifth grade race, with the entire school cheering them on.

For some students these tasks were easy. Some are natural performers and athletes. But for most, this took a bit of courage and perseverance.  They were nervous, jumping and pacing before each event. For these moments they were all stars.

Two: I celebrate storytelling as a pathway to learning and writing. Students had researched and written reports about Westward Expansion, but their work was rather lifeless. Their voice was lost in the facts and dates they had taken in. Most did not connect the various parts.

Inspired by a post from Steve Peterson, on the power of narrative in content learning, and a visit from our TCRWP staff developer Katie Clements, who worked with us to help students find their own voice in writing about reading,  I decided to celebrate their writing  through storytelling.

I gave students paper, markers and invited them to tell the story of Westward Expansion.

2014-12-18 09.02.07Most students split the project up into the pieces they knew well. Then they presented their stories to the class. All were unique.  Some told the story as a chronology. Some told pieces of the story as cause and effect, while others saw their part as a problem with needed solutions.

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The hardest part for students to articulate was how the story connected.  As students presented, we kept track of ideas. After each group we looked for patterns that led students to see more about how the story might fit together.

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I was fascinated by this process. Structure was a natural outgrowth. Voice was present in the drawings and the presentations. These elements that I struggled to capture instructionally came out as students revised their work by telling the story together. After their presentations, all saw the need to revise their writing.


Three: I celebrate the joy in giving gifts. Students came early to class on Friday, arms filled with presents. They begged me to open them. I loved the mugs, the candy, and the ornaments made just for me.

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I gave students a set of personalized pens.  Finding their name, first and last, embossed on a pen amazed them. “How did you do this?!!”

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Four: I celebrate the end of our read aloud: Wonder. We had a lot to finish in the Julian chapter, but students sat rapt, begging to go on. I was glad to oblige and sipped tea to keep my voice alive. Between the two classes, I spent nearly two hours reading aloud. Not a bad way to end 2014.

Five: I celebrate winter break and the time with family. I’m ready to let 2014 wind down; reflect, relax and look forward.

Thank you Ruth Ayers for the opportunity to Celebrate This Week. Find other celebrations here.

Happy holidays.

celebrate link up





Slice of Life: Writing About Reading With Kelly Gallagher

I spent last Saturday learning with Kelly Gallagher, the amazing Clark Kent-like teacher, author, speaker. While his work is geared toward middle and high school students, don’t be afraid elementary folk. Many things make sense for the youngers too.

For years, I have struggled with students’ writing about reading. They have done it because I asked them to. Kicking and screaming.  From the students’ perspective, writing about reading was more about accountability.  I believe them.

On Saturday, Gallagher shared a writing about reading activity that blew me away in terms of my understanding of a text.  We were to read a short text, the poem “Billiards’ by Walker Gibson, three times.  Each time we read, we were to self assess our understanding. After scoring the third read, we were instructed to write about the text’s meaning for three minutes. My understanding dramatically increased by writing my thinking down.  Of the teachers in the room, about 75% reported the same phenomenon. The difference was so clear I thought I had to try this with my students.

I choose a 150-word excerpt from our read aloud. This exercise was presented as an experiment. Something for them to try out to see what they got out of it. I told them I was not collecting it. It was for them. After writing, over half of the readers reported growth in understanding and felt the writing increased their understanding.

Interested in their thinking, I conferred with a dozen readers.

I asked  – What happened as you went through the process? Here are a few responses.

Writing about it after I read really made a difference. It totally changed my thinking since the first read.

I had to really think to write what I thought.

It was completely different than the quick writing I do. It took longer, but I got a whole different idea from it.

It was hard. I understand the text but putting it into words was difficult.

Writing made no difference in understanding, but there was a change in re reading it. I noticed more by the third read.

One partnership reported that writing made no change in their understanding.  I asked them to write again after they had talked the text. After about two minutes, we reconvened. Both reported the writing after talking made a difference.

Some individuals claimed no change in their understanding through out the process which is a red flag for other reasons.

While this isn’t The Solution to my writing about reading issues, it has added a new tool for my students and me.  It’s interesting work worth trying.

A few other thoughts  —

  • Readers saw this process as useful when they were confused or in part they think might matter
  • Readers who struggle writing their thoughts need to be coached.
  • Readers need reading time. Writing about reading should be strategic, purposeful.


Thank you to Dana, Betsy, Anna, Beth, Tara, and Stacey of Two Writing Teachers Blog for Tuesday Slice of Life.

Read more slices and contribute your own here.

Reflections on My Year Part 2: Reader’s and Writer’s Notebooks

I’ve been thinking a lot about Reader’s Notebooks and how my students used them.  I’ve wanted the Reader’s Notebook to show students’ thinking about and process while reading; ultimately showing their growth as readers over the year. Now I’m wondering, after reading and rereading Linda Rief’s book Read, Write, Teach, if I have overlooked something important. In Rief’s 8th grade classroom, students have a WRN, a Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook that co-mingles their reading responses and their writing entries. Would this work for 5th graders? Could my students’ reading lives feed their writing lives? Could this mix create better readers?

I had to try this out. Honestly, authentically. But first a  confession.

Reader’s notebooks are a tough sell.  Students either just want to read, or they just don’t like doing it.  I get their point. I take notes on reading (often informational or for a book club), but these notes usually end up in the books I’m reading. I annotate, use post its and leave loose leaf pages in books, but I haven’t  used a reader’s notebook to keep track of my reading thoughts over time. “Teacher me” can see the potential, but “Reader me” hasn’t owned this.

What I discovered. First off, it was difficult to develop the habit. I kept forgetting. And, it is a less natural thing (for me) to do with fiction.  After three weeks, with the notebook near by,  I’m writing responses to the text and pulling quotes. I write about what mattered to me. I write when things kept hitting me again and again, or when characters surprise me or irritate me. More importantly, I’m noticing a shift in my engagement in and attitude toward writing about reading.

The payoff. After a few reads, my writing about reading is becoming a collection. Those lines that come from multiple texts are there in one place and are easy to set beside one another and see connections. (Ooo, Teacher me is seeing Reading Standards 1 and 9 in flashing lights, and Reader me is just thinking that’s so cool!)

And a writing bonus: Quotes and responses from reading  have become  jumping off points for writing entries. This line from Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy  started an entry on naming my kids and one on the importance my mom placed on naming me.

2014-06-26 09.50.11Then I noticed another quote pulled from Snicker of Magic and I thought about the connection to names in that read as well.






Rief’s Writer’s-Reader’s Notebooks include sections on response, classroom lessons, vocabulary, and spelling. Lots of valuable writing and reading connections all in one place. In the response section she asks students to do a multitude of things with text and life. It is all about noticing and responding to what you encounter be it text or the world.

*to collect/respond to/react to/reflect on reading (books, magazines, instructions, other classes, etc.), writing, observations, and discoveries about yourself, others, and the world with writing, collected pictures, charts, cartoons, lists, drawing

I love these thoughts Rief gives her students for inspiration:

Your notebook is a room of your own. It provides a safe place for you to ask: What do I notice? What do I care about? What really matters? What moves the deepest part of me? What haunts me? What do I want to remember—in my life, in this world—for the rest of my life? What do I want to write about?” —Ralph Fletcher, Breathing In, Breathing Out, p.3

The point of a notebook (journal) is to jumpstart your mind.” —John Gregory Dunn from Shoptalk (1990, Don Murray)

My notebook is who I am/everything I want to remember as a writer, reader, thinker, listener, observer of the world around me.” —Linda Rief

I’m keeping the last quote for the front of my notebook. One I will share with my students at the end of the summer.

While the idea of a combined Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook breaks away from my original construct of a separate Writer’s Notebook, introduced at my school in 3rd grade and then developed in 4th, I think next year I’d like to venture into this hybrid idea. I’ve noticed  my students’ Writer’s Notebooks are not used very heavily.  This trend speaks to the earlier drafting and revising work they are doing outside of the notebook. Which is good, but their independent writing lives seem underdeveloped. Perhaps bringing the two notebooks together will motivate readers to write more about their reading and find more inspiration for their own narratives and opinions.

How have you and your students document your reading lives? Does the work support your writing life?

Reflections on My Year Part 1: Read Aloud


images-2 It’s summertime. Time to reflect on practices that worked and areas that need some work. Time to dig a little deeper..

Today I’m thinking about reading and specifically interactive read aloud. My reflection here is based on a mixture of data: what my students reported directly, my observations (so often documented with pictures)  and reading assessments of many types.

My reflections on our reading year is filtered through the lens of two goals: 1) that students walk away knowing that reading is a place to find learning and joy and 2) they know how to find this on their own. If they come out with these two things, I believe they will keep reading.

My students rate read aloud as the best part of the day. The interesting aspect of this is why.  So I asked. Results of their responses are interesting.

Scratching the surface of why —  it seems to be for the pure entertainment of story or the fascination of figuring something out. Students want to know what comes next or understand the why or how of something.  Digging deeper into student thinking, students love read aloud because of the  laughter, suspense, wonder, fear, sadness, and knowledge they get from it.  Another thing that comes up for so many students is coming together to experience these big emotions and learning as one: to talk about it, question it, figure it out, all together. Some revel in the fact that when I do the reading work they are free to do the thinking work.

Being that read aloud is interactive, not passive, there is a fair amount of opportunity to access the text independently while read aloud is going on. I project the text as I read it, so students can see what I’m seeing and get that much closer to how I’m doing it. I show my thinking when I stop and wonder, or figure it out in an attempt to demonstrate all the things that readers do.

imgresI give them a chance to wonder, to jot, to turn to share what they think; to think beside me.  I chart, they chart.  I ask them to read/think with purpose, to read/think closely.  They try, I listen in to conversations or collect their jotted thinking to figure out how closely they are to riding that bike on their own.  This is practice of how it feels to read and think deeply, connecting the pieces.

In the beginning of a book, I  purposefully request their noticings; building class understandings with collected post its and comments. Because I control the pace of the reading, it makes getting students to take more control of the reading work tricky. My goal has been to move them towards holding on to their noticings and add them together to get develop understanding across the text. The more students hold on to and connect it to a stopping point, it seems the more they are growing as thinkers.

This is just one part of a literate classroom and students accessed it on different levels this year, but each walked away from read aloud loving the books we read and gaining skills they used during read aloud.

  • Collecting know and wonders
  • Noticing what repeats (again and again)
  • Sketching scenes to help visualize moments
  • Writing on graffiti walls to hold quotes that matter
  • Using post it parking lots to make thinking visible
  • Writing longer about what noticings/wonderings make you think.
  • Extending talk with thought prompts
  • Going back over text to pull words and lines to wonder about and  to hold on to
  • Re reading with a  specific lens
  • Making connections between multiple texts’ language and ideas

Looking back over the list, many students were not able to access certain strategies (in bold) without support. And it’s not surprising. These are the tasks that are higher on the continuum of understanding literature.

With this in mind, I start out the year aware and focused on what purposeful support I need to provide next year’s kiddos.

  • More whole group and small group lessons around each of these trouble spots
  • Partner/group work to support each of these areas
  • Many opportunities to talk and then write longer about their thinking
  • More writing about reading that bridges into the writing workshop

Lots of this looks like more talking and writing about their reading. Practicing what is a bit tougher to do. Making it audible and visible.

Next reflection, that reading notebook.






Assessment: Letting the Students Drive the Data

After reading Jennifer Brittin’s great post on the NCTE’s position paper on formative assessment and her struggles with data, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and fess up: I am drowning in data. Post its trail me. I find them in bags and books. Notebooks are filled with data creation, collection and interpretation that leads hopefully to next steps for nearly 60 students. Frankly even when I analyze and categorize the data, then group students, feedback seems no where near what John Hattie calls “timely.”  Superhuman powers seem necessary. An all-knowing great and powerful Oz of a teacher…or is that just that man behind the curtain?

Due to my lack of super powers, I am looking to students to learn what they need to do and then approximate their success along the way. Their approximations of success may be slightly off, but their misinterpretations of the expectation is easier for me to lean into than me  letting them know “where they stand.” It is a work in progress, but so far this is how reading is looking. I have based these “ladders” on Jennifer Serravallo’s work with an eye toward growing student thinking and writing about reading in the areas of setting, plot and character.

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Setting: Writing about Reading Using Ladder to Grow Thinking
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Plot – Writing About Reading Addressing Character’s Problems
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Character: Writing About Reading Using a Post it Ladder

I have students use their self-selected club books and write about their reading (click here for sheet)  weekly using the ladders to assess their thinking. They work independently, then go to their groups to revise and hopefully refine/upgrade their thinking during club talk. Each week I look at their assessment of their work. and then group for instruction the following week. Needs fluctuate based on the type and level book.

A group of readers who tested out as “T/U” did exceptional work in Tale of Desperaux a “Q” level book that had been read aloud to them in third grade. It was some of the best work I’d seen. They got it!  And more importantly, they know how it feels to get it. As they move on, they should have a model of success to work from.  

I’ve also seen the opposite. Students not being able to do the work, and more importantly they are starting to see where they are. I’m hearing more, “Ohhh that’s what that means,” versus, me saying this is what it means. Shockingly some are still discovering that setting refers to a place and or time not a character’s clothing. Shocking that I thought they knew what setting was, after all, hadn’t I told them many times.

I’m so thankful for the voices such as those in the NCTE twitter chat on Sunday night (read the Storify here) that are solidly behind the work of goal-oriented, student-driven assessment or as Kristi Mraz (@mrazkristine)  termed “successment!”  Here’s to a lot more of doing that work together.